Review – The Pirogue: The young man and the sea

2012-07-25 12:45

I cry easily and find that my emotional responses – laughter, tears, a racing heart – are one of the surest ways to judge a film.

So it’s been bewildering, midway through the Durban International Film Festival, to find myself almost entirely unmoved by the local and African offerings – until I watched The Pirogue.

Established Senegalese filmmaker Moussa Touré’s story about illegal immigrants trying to reach Europe on a long wooden fishing boat (a pirogue) is not at all an emotional affair, though.

In fact, it’s quite the opposite. With an unsentimental, documentarian eye, Touré’s camera observes the journey that fisherman Baye Laye must make as captain of a multiethnic human cargo, all of who have given up hope of a future in Senegal and some of whom cannot swim.

Their numb acceptance of the trials that they must face speaks volumes.

The Pirogue is a muscular, beautiful and political film that captures the reality of the 5 000-odd Africans that are known to have died on the pirogues in the course of just five years.

Yet, despite a heart-stopping computer-generated storm sequence and an unflinching humanitarian gaze, it’s also not a piece of realism. Touré’s film is very precisely punctuated by symbolism.

Beneath a Muslim exterior, animism and the ancients define his characters – a broken egg for the journey, the ritual charms and chants of traditional wrestling, a single traditional song sung at a pivotal moment in the plot.

Facing the film’s antagonist – the sea – there is a single, carefully selected hallucination of land – cattle in the dust.

On the boat there is a chicken that escapes but has nowhere to run.

The dreams of the ancestors are grounded by earth. The dreams of the future are at sea.

In a similar vein, volumes of political information are conveyed in a single line.

“Do not eat the sandwich,” says one refugee to another when they are offered assistance by the Spanish Red Cross in the form of €15 and a bread roll.

By refusing to bludgeon us with the issues and by leaving the space to feel and interpret the messages, Touré draws from us a profound empathy and a focus on the humanity of his characters.

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